An Wasserflüssen Babylon

An Wasserflüssen Babylon

BWV 653 performed by Leo van Doeselaar
St. Martin's Church, Groningen

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

A sombre Sarabande

Bach strengthens faith in desperate straits

The chorale An Wasserflüssen Babylon describes the desperate situation of the Israelites in exile. Many composers in the seventeenth century made an arrangement of it, with the Hamburg organist Adam Reincken as the absolute champion. His chorale fantasy based on this text lasts for almost twenty minutes, which fact alone brought it great fame. Bach also knew the piece. As a fifteen-year-old, he copied it down and undoubtedly studied it well. But when he made his own arrangement of An Wasserflüssen Babylon around ten years later, in his time as court organist in Weimar, he did not follow Reincken’s example. Instead of an ingenious but somewhat frivolous fantasy, he chose to create a compact, sombre chorale prelude.

In Weimar, Bach even made two different versions. One of them, BWV 653b, has five voices, and the melody sounds ethereally in the upper voice, against a sombre double pedal part. In the other version, BWV 653a, the ornamented melody in the middle voice is wedged between two upper voices and pedal. This latter version was clearly Bach’s favourite, as he revised the material in his later years in Leipzig, by adding even more ornamentation to the melody and further accentuating the drawn-out rhythm as a slow sarabande. In this way, he emphasised the point of this chorale, which is expressed in the later verses of the text, where the Israelites are forced to sing a song of praise. But how are they to sing in such hopeless circumstances? That is precisely what Bach conveys in this chorale prelude. Although the oppressors have got the exiles right where they want them, the timid middle voice keeps going courageously, and with all the ornamentation displays faith in a good outcome.

18 Choräle/Leipziger Choräle, BWV 651-668
In the last ten years of his life, Bach gathered together and completed a series of chorale arrangements, presumably planning to have them published, just like the third part of the Clavier-Übung in 1739. It concerns a selection of his compositions from much earlier years, when he was working as an organist in Weimar, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. The collection became known as the 18 Choräle or Leipziger Choräle. Incidentally, 18 Choräle is a misleading title, as the set originally comprised 17 pieces. The eighteenth, Vor deinen Thron tret ich (BWV 668), was added to Bach’s manuscript later on.

An Wasserflüssen Babylon
organ works
18 Choräle (organ)
Special notes
There are two earlier, more sober versions of this composition from the Weimar period: BWV 653a and BWV 653b.

Extra videos

Organist Leo van Doeselaar

“For this work Bach used the sarabande. The character of this dance agrees quite well with the intention of this none too cheerful chorale prelude”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    8 August 2014
  • Recording date
    9 October 2013
  • Location
    St. Martin's Church, Groningen
  • Organist
    Leo van Doeselaar
  • Organ registration
    Tim Knigge
  • Organ
    Arp Schnitger, 1692
  • Producer
    Frank van der Weij
  • Film directors
    Jan Van den Bossche, Frank van der Weij
  • Directors of photography
    Jorrit Garretsen, Sal Kroonenberg
  • Music production, editing and mix
    Holger Schlegel
  • Film editor
    Dylan Glyn Jones
  • Colorist
    Martijn de Haas
  • Production assistants
    Marco Meijdam, Zoë de Wilde
  • Interview
    Onno van Ameijde
  • Acknowledgements
    Jan Haak

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